Director: Allen Coulter
I think it can be stated without much argument that the greatest comic book superhero of all time is Superman. The Man of Steel has had his share of memorable moments since he first appeared in the pages of DC's Action Comics in 1938, but one moment connected to the character is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Millions of children across America during the 1950s were absolutely enthralled with the television show The Adventures of Superman, making the show a huge hit and bringing fame to its lead actor, George Reeves. But these same children were devastated when they awoke on the morning of June 16, 1959, and saw the headline "TV's 'SUPERMAN' KILLS SELF" on newspapers everywhere. Reeves, the man a generation of youngsters had come to see as the real-life face of their beloved superhero, was dead due to a gunshot wound to the head. Investigators concluded that the shot was self-inflicted, but the five decades that have passed since then have given way to conspiracy theories that perhaps Reeves was not the one to pull the trigger after all. These theories eventually evolved into Hollywoodland, a movie that concurrently tells both the rise and fall of Reeves's career, as well as a fictionalized account of an investigation into his tragic demise. And folks, it's a damn fine movie.
Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) is a sleazy private detective, working out of a cheap flophouse apartment with his secretary and live-in girlfriend, Kit Holliday (Caroline Dhavernas). When he isn't stringing along his clients to make as much money as possible, he struggles to stay connected to his estranged son Evan (Zach Mills), one of the many young boys negatively affected by the death of George Reeves (Ben Affleck). After hearing that Reeves's mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith), believes that her son was murdered, Simo smooth-talks her into hiring him to look into it.
But what begins as a way for Simo to make an easy paycheck and get his name in the newspapers turns into something much more. As his investigation continues, he begins to discover that a number of people in Reeves's life had a motive to murder him. Turns out that Reeves was sleeping around with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), a high-powered executive at MGM Studios who apparently has no qualms over using underworld connections to make "potential problems" disappear. Another suspect is Reeves's fiancée, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), with whom he frequently quarreled.
And then there's all the holes that appear in the case. The suicide contains questionable physics, there were no fingerprints on the gun, there are two mysterious bullet holes in the floor, and there's the fact that it took forty-five minutes before any of the people at Reeves's house at the time called the police. So how did George Reeves die? Did his fiancée shoot him after a particularly bitter argument? Did his mistress, angry over having been left for a younger woman, have her husband put a hit on him? Or in a bout of depression brought on by his floundering career, did he shoot himself after all?
Hollywoodland is not just a story about the fictional investigation into an actor's death. It is a story of love and loyalty, of the search for fame and the disillusionment that can come with it, and ultimately of redemption. It is a story of how one reacts after to hitting rock bottom, and how there are so many things can go wrong, but only so few ways things can go right. It's a story that is told wonderfully, with wonderful direction, acting, and writing that makes it a fantastic movie.
Let's go with the screenplay first. Penned by Paul Bernbaum, the screenplay bounces back and forth between Louis Simo's story and the last ten years of George Reeves's life. When I first saw Hollywoodland, I wished they had just stuck to Reeves's story, which I believed to be the more intriguing of the two. But upon re-watching it, I don't know if the stories could coexist without one another, because the characters are so much alike. Both start the movie just trying to get a little attention, but as things progress, both Reeves and Simo learn that the things they want are not always what they appear to be. And though their stories have quite different conclusions, their tales oddly mirror one another at times. Bernbaum also takes things in a different direction than most film noirs by not settling on one particular resolution. He doesn't point any fingers at who's to blame for Reeves's death, but instead takes a page from Akira Kurosawa's classic Rashomon and presents three different theories as to what happened, allowing the viewer to make their own conclusions. It's an intriguing way to handle things, and it gives the audience something to talk about once the credits have rolled. The relatively open ending makes for a great topic of debate, and perhaps it was the best way to keep the mystery of Reeves's death alive.
Making his feature film debut after directing television shows, particularly numerous episodes of The Sopranos and Sex in the City, Allen Coulter shows a lot of promise as a movie director. His work here is sound, successfully balancing the two separate timelines with ease. He and cinematographer Jonathan Freeman craft a visually appealing film with their great camerawork, filming Simo's scenes somewhat roughly and Reeves's with a fancy elegance. Certain color schemes and lighting techniques are also used to enhance the movie. Things are bright and happy during many of Reeves's scenes, shadowy during Eddie's scenes and when Reeves undergoes moments of emotional crisis, and moving to washed-out sepia tones during Simo's scenes. These differences in color really go a long way in establishing the proper mood and tone for the movie. Helping this is the fine music composed by Marcelo Zarvos, a blues and jazz-oriented score that really gives the movie a big boost.
Last but not least is the movie's greatest ingredient, its cast. Every actor and actress in the movie does a fantastic job, especially those playing the four primary characters. Adrien Brody is great as washed-up private eye Louis Simo, handling well the character's arc as an opportunistic slimeball that learns over the course of the movie that there are perhaps more important things in life than money and recognition. Diane Lane is nothing short of wonderful from start to finish as Toni Mannix. She plays the role with a certain vulnerability, yet is still a strong, take-charge kind of woman when she needs to be. Bob Hoskins also turns in an admirable performance as Eddie Mannix, but since it seems like he's used to playing heavies, it's probably not all that much of a challenge for him at this point in his career. Robin Tunney, Lois Smith, and Jeffrey Munn also do fine jobs as Reeves's fiancée, mother, and agent respectively.
But perhaps my favorite performance among the cast was Ben Affleck. Hollywoodland marks Affleck's big comeback after spending three years out of the scene, and it's ironic that he's playing George Reeves. Reeves's career stalled out after The Adventures of Superman, and though he still got work in movies like From Here to Eternity, he went to his grave known primarily as Superman. His story is a sad one, with his failure to break away from the shadow of the Man of Steel having left him a depressed and brokenhearted man. Quite similarly, Affleck's career suffered a severe slump as well, thanks to a combination of his overexposed relationship with Jennifer Lopez, and the bad luck of starring in four straight movies Gigli, Paycheck, Saving Christmas, and Jersey Girl that underperformed at the box office. But Hollywoodland marks his return to movies, and it's a good place for him to start. Affleck plays the role perfectly, sucking the viewer in with his at times humorous, at times utterly sympathetic performance. It's a shame that he didn't receive at least a nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, because he definitely deserved it.
I wouldn't say that Hollywoodland isn't the greatest neo-noir ever made, but it's certainly one of the best in recent memory. It never tries to be more than what it is, and that is a tale of a man who reached for the stars, yet ultimately could not pay the high cost of living in Hollywood. George Reeves's life ended under disheartening consequences no matter who you believe pulled the trigger that night, but to paraphrase the movie's tagline, dying in Hollywood perhaps brought him a greater fame than he had in life. And it goes without saying that that fame made for a great movie. Hollywoodland gets four stars, and a solid seal of approval. Go check it out.
Final Rating: ****